One of the main problems with global warming is rising ocean levels, caused by melting ice sheets. As shorelines recede, there will be salt contamination of water tables. Now an animal has been discovered that may be very useful for the future: a camel that can survive on water that is too salty for other creatures.

Not only will the animals themselves be useful in days to come, their genes could be transferred to the DNA of other livestock, allowing them to thrive in newly hostile areas.

The camels were discovered in 1999 in sand dunes in China. Scientists don’t yet know if the camels are a separate species or relative of the more common, domesticated Bactrian camels of China. “They look different fromBactrians,” says John Hare of the Wild Camel Protection Foundation of Britain. “Their humps are farther apart and smaller.” DNA tests show that they are not wild runaways from ancient Silk Road caravans, as was first thought.

“We have only a thousand animals in four separated populations,” Hare says. “The situation is highly critical.” Scientists may try to preserve the species by transferring their embryos into Bactrian camels.

China is setting up a reserve for them. They have survived for the past 40 years because they lived near China’s nuclear testing range. But after nuclear testing ended, the area attracted gold miners, who like to eat camel meat.

If the U.S. builds its Star Wars system, China has said it will resume nuclear testing. That would chase off the miners, but cause new problems for the camels.

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